In a speech given to priests and seminarians attending a course on the Sacrament of Confession, Pope Francis spoke about the mercy of God, stating that it is the most important aspect of their ministry.
“Confession is not a court of condemnation, but an experience of forgiveness and mercy!” the Pope expressed in his March 28 speech to those attending the annual Course on the Internal Forum.
The Internal Forum part of the Apostolic Penitentiary, which is one of the three tribunals of the Roman Curia and is responsible for issues relating to the forgiveness of sins in the Catholic Church, particularly sins involving some types of grave matter which require a special form of absolution that only certain priests can administer.
Lasting for four days, the conference is held every year in Rome and is attended by around 500 seminarians in the third year of studies as well as various priests who wish to participate. It is designed to educate attendees on the Canon law regarding Confession, as well as what the Internal Forum does.
Highlighting how the Apostolic Penitentiary is one of the oldest offices of the Church as well as the importance of having well-formed confessors, the Pope thanked participants for their “valuable service” and encouraged them “to take it forward with renewed commitment.”
Pope Francis also pressed attendees to build upon their “experience gained and with skilful creativity, to always help the Church and confessors to better carry out the ministry of mercy, which is so important!”
Reflecting on the theme of mercy, the Pope pointed out that “the protagonist of the ministry of reconciliation is the Holy Spirit,” adding that “the forgiveness that the Sacrament confers is the new life sent by the Risen Lord by means of His Spirit: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
“Therefore, you are called to always be ‘men of the Holy Spirit,’ witnesses and heralds, joyful and strong, of the resurrection of the Lord.”
Explaining how this witness is “read on the face,” the pontiff explained that it is also “heard in the voice of the priest” who administers the sacrament with “faith and with ‘unction,’” and welcomes the penitents who come, rather than treating them “with the attitude of a judge.”
Observing how “the heart of the priest is a heart that knows how to be moved, not by sentimentality or mere emotion, but to the ‘tender mercy’ of the Lord,” the Pope drew attention to the dual role of a confessor as both “doctor and judge,” adding that “we must never forget that as a doctor he is called to heal and as a judge, to absolve.”
In a second point, the pontiff noted that if the sacrament “transmits the new life of the Risen Lord and renews baptismal grace,” then the task of a priest “is to give it generously to others.”
“A priest who does not attend to this part of his ministry, both in the amount of time spent and in the spiritual quality, is like a shepherd who does not take care of the sheep that were lost; he is like a father who forgets the lost son and neglects waiting for him.”
Reminding those in attendance how many persons often experience “difficulty” in “approaching the sacrament” for various reasons, the Pope expressed the necessity “to work hard on ourselves, on our humanity, never to be an obstacle but always to favor drawing near to mercy and forgiveness.”
He also cautioned participants to guard against the two extremes “rigorism and laxism” in administering Confession, observing that “neither is good, because in reality they don’t take charge of the person of the penitent.”
“Instead, mercy truly listens with the heart of God and wants to accompany the soul on the path of reconciliation.”
Bringing up a final point in his discourse, Pope Francis stated that although many know of the difficulties encountered in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we also know that “the Lord wanted to give this immense gift to His Church, offering to the baptized the security of the Father's forgiveness.”
“For this reason” he said, “it is very important that in every diocese and in the parish communities, particular care is taken of the celebration of this Sacrament of forgiveness and salvation.”
Encouraging attendees to make clear times available for the sacrament in their parishes and to let their congregation know, the Pope emphasized that “when there is fidelity, the fruits are seen.”
Concluding his speech, the pontiff entrusted the priestly ministry and all Christian communities to “the Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy,” praying that “that they might always grow in understanding the value of the Sacrament of Penance.”
“I entrust all of you to our Mother and I bless you from the heart.”